Three for the price of one

One for the ladies: Captain Belaye (Robert Parker) sets the hearts of maidens a flutter in old Pompey. Photos: Roy Smiljanic

Autumn Glory

Birmingham Royal Ballet

Birmingham Hippodrome


Remember those days at the pictures when you got change from a quid and sat through a B movie and a short waiting for the main feature starring the likes of Gene Kelly?

Well that is Autumn Glory, a first piece, a short and then the main feature - except we got Robert Parker for Gene Kelly and that is not a bad exchange. Parker has that special quality that the likes of George Best or Pele had in sport – that buzz of anticipation as soon as they appear, that feeling that what you are about to see was worth waiting for.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. First up was Checkmate with music by Sir Arthur Bliss, later to become Master of the Queen's Music. It was first produced in 1937 choreographed by Ninette de Valois, who established first the Royal Ballet then the Birmingham Royal Ballet.

It is a dramatic battle between red and black, who from the prologue are interpreted as Love playing red and death playing black.

For those remembering chess sets from their youth and wondering if a visit to Specsavers is needed? Yes they have got the colours wrong. It should be white against red or black but it was decided black or red against white would not look as good and certainly would not be as dramatic.

Iain Mackay gives us a powerful, athletic Red Knight while new recruit Max Westwell is in there as one of the Black Knights in a piece which sees the dancers following the moves of the characters they play on a chessbaord.

Star of the piece though is Victoria Marr as the Black Queen. Get on the wrong side of her at your peril. You get the feeling she probably eats spent mates for breakfast - literally.

She sees off the Red Queen Jenna Roberts in short order but looks to have reached the end of her reign at the hands of the Red Knight who has disarmed her and towers over her broken body, sword poised.

Chivalry might not be dead but Iain Mackay's Red Knight soon will be in the dramatic Checkmate

But full of chivalry and his head full of all that Round Table stuff he spares her.  Gallant but none-too-bright there Mr Mackay. She might be a Queen but she was no lady!. As he explains it all to the Red King she sneaks up behind him with both her sword and his discarded weapon and shows her gratitude  for his gallantry by running him through. Nice lady.

 It looks as if it is a toss up whether age or the Black Queen will see off Jonathan Payn's doddery Red King first, but you are safe with your money on the old Queen who is in there smelling blood.. No surrender or concession in this game of chess. no chance to resign.You win or you are dead. This chess is a blood sport.

It is a bit confusing when all the chess pieces are scattered across the board  and the sparring between Red Knights and Black Knights did have a touch of Morris dancing about it, but it was dramatic stuff nonetheless and beautifully danced to the stylised victory of death over love.

Symphonic Variations with choreography by Frederick Ashton to the 1885 piece by Belgian composer César Franck was anything but dramatic.

It was almost the ballet equivalent of music's etudes with three women, Nao Sakuma, Natasha Oughtred and Elisha Willis and three men Chi Cao, Joseph Caley and César Morales showing the elegance, beauty and tenderness of ballet. Three couples who flowed across the stage like the finest silk  in vaguely Grecian costumes by Sophie Fedorovitch. At times it had a hint of Health & Efficiency about it - or is that me showing my age.

The piece was written for piano and orchestra so a mention for pianist Jonathan Higgins who took a well deserved bow for some superb playing. This was an orchestra piece in its own right and is still performed in concert halls around the world remember and in the capable hands of the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under Philip Ellis you could see why.

Which brings us to the main feature and Pineapple Poll which first appeared at Saddler's Wells in 1951 designed by Osbert Lancaster in the best G&S tradition and choreographed by John Cranko all to the gloriously jolly music of Arthur Sullivan.

Chi Cao and Nao Sakuma in the beautiful and sensual Symphonic Variations

Carol-Anne Millar is wonderful as Poll, a bumboat* woman selling her wares in Portsmouth at about the same time as HMS Pinafore was ruling the waves.

Like every girl in town she falls for the dashing and devilishly handsome Captain Belaye, played with a suitable swagger by Robert Parker, the very model of a modern major . . . dancer. One hopes that his move to Elmhurst as artistic director has a clause in the contract that he has to appear from time to time with BRB just to keep his hand in. He will be missed.

The laws of physics dictate that Parker cannot stay in the air longer then anyone else so it must just seem that he does and whether it is his training as a pilot or not I don't know but he does always seem to have the softest of landings.

He makes everything he does look simple and easy from hornpipes to soaring leaps all with that easy charm which makes him a crowd favourite.

This is a fun piece with Belaye about to be hitched to  Blanche, the demure Arancha Baselga who is chaperoned by her aunt Mrs Dimple, the old Black Queen herself, Victoria Marr, showing us her dottier side.

The girls of the town can't have that though, losing the local heartthrob, and, determined to snare the good captain for themselves, all sneak aboard HMS Hot Cross Bun disguised as sailors with false beards and exaggerated walks.

The lumpy jumpers should have been a bit of a giveaway mind, but I suppose in those days of press gangs a crew was a crew and you didn't ask too many questions.

Robert Parker who sends a buzz of anticipation through the audience whenever he appears

The real crew of husbands and boyfriends were none-too-chuffed though when they found out but within a few bars of jolly music it all ended happily.

Belaye got hitched, the women of the town were forgiven and Poll even found her true love in Jasper, the pot boy** from the local pub The Steam Packet, unashamedly played for sympathy - everyone say Ahhhhhh - by Tzu-Chao Chou.

Great fun and a splendid end to an entertaining evening full of contrasts. To 08-10-11

Roger Clarke

The second movement . . .


WELL, shiver me timbers! The BRB's triple bill of drama, beauty and comedy ends in shipshape fashion with sailors and their girls dancing to music from Gilbert & Sullivan..

It's a light-hearted and amusing way to conclude a thoroughly enjoyable evening as Pineapple Poll is performed to Arthur Sullivan's timeless tunes and John Cranko's choreography.

Poll is mischievously played by Carole-Anne Millar, one of the quayside girls in Portsmouth with eyes only for the handsome Captain Belaye (Robert Parker at his best) - much to the annoyance of the ordinary tars in town.The brightly costumed piece includes a cracking scene where the girls don false beards and sailor suits, pretending to be crew members, in a plan to board HMS Hot Cross Bun and pursue the gallant skipper who is already on the point of marriage.

Carole-Anne Millar rises effortlessly  to the role of Pineapple Poll

 Autumn Glory opens with Checkmate, cleverly choreographed by Ninette de Valois, in which the dancers become human chesspieces in a searing story of lust, trickery and betrayal.

Iain Mackay and Victoria Marr are superb as the First Red Knight and Black Queen, involved in a battle to the death. It is beautifully danced, with menace, to the music of Arthur Bliss.

The middle piece of the programme, Symphonic Variations, features six dancers - Natasha Oughtred, Nao Sakuma, Elisha Willis, Cesar Morales, Joseph Caley and Chi Cao - performing with extraordinary skill to Frederick Ashton's brilliant choreography and Cesar Franck's music.

A triple treat is given wonderful support by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, conducted by Philip Ellis. To 08.10.11

Paul Marston

The educational bit

*A bumboat, before you get too excited or suffer an attack of the vapours, was one of the small boats ferrying supplies and offering trinkets to ships moored out in the harbour – from the Dutch for canoe, boomschuit, apparently.

**A pot boy was, and in some pubs still is employed to take drinks to customers in a pub and to collect empty glasses, or pots.


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